Monday, 6 July 2009

Upheaval in China.

There appears to have been a rather large-scale massacre in China. I say appears because as seems to be their standard response to civil unrest, internet and mobile phone service have been cut of to the area, leaving the reports rather thin.

It appears that at least 140 people are dead and over 800 injured, largely in inter-ethnic violence. That is not a short violent riot, that is massive civil unrest. Until the world's media is allowed access to eyewitnesses we have only the official version to say what happened, and you'll forgive me I hope for not just taking the word of a dictatorial, authoritarian post-maoist government at face value.

The part that really starts to get tedious is that old response that totalitarian governments always bring out when faced with dissent:
"The Xinjiang government blamed separatist Uighurs based abroad for orchestrating attacks on ethnic Han Chinese."
It's never actually the people being angry, you see, after all everything is paradise within the nirvana that is China, Iran, Burma/yanmar or wherever. And so the government casts around and finds that the CIA, the BBC, the Russians, the Jews, or as in this case the exiles. And that's just lazy. Nobody believes it really: the people accused know they didn't do it; the people involved in the dissent know the real reason they are involved; spectators, journalists and other leaders around the world are unconvinced; and the Gorvernment sure as hell knows they made it up. So wouldn't it be nice, just for a change if dictators could start being honest?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

I understand she also thought about taking some post-its home.

Iain Dale's blog mentions a Torygraph story of a sacking in the Civil Service. Apparently if you work for the British government it is now a sacking offence to criticise your boss. Especially if said boss has been doing something massively unethical.

This is the kind of thing that gets a government a reputation as illiberal and authoritarian. Well this and wanting ID cards. Well this, wanting ID cards and wanting detention without trial. Well this, Id cards, the detention thing, trying to scrap jury tria...I'll start again.

This government is illiberal and authoritarian.

La Belle Label.

In my other blog (over here) I got into a discussion with a couple of guys and the thorny issue of labels came ups. I favoured the classic Oreos label and they prefer the modern and groovy Snickers label. Or perhaps it wasn't that sort of label. Yeah, on second thoughts maybe it was political labels. I say they have almost no usefulness, others think they serve a purpose.

The problem I have with them is complex. For starters there is the lack of flexibility. If I define myself as a realist, I am seen to think within a certain box, the way I interpret the world around me is coloured by a certain system. And this is not just the way others view me; having told the world I am a realist I begin to train myself to think like a realist. And this is all very well, except that, untrammelled, it becomes a runaway train. I know (at least online “know”) many neo-cons who feel compelled to support a Cheney style attitude that torture is ok if it protects the USA from attack. At least one of these I know to have been an active Amnesty member before 9/11, who abhors torture. Having announced loudly and often that he is a neo-con, however, he now feels that he cannot stray from the fold without somehow being treacherous.

As most people soon realise (and I worked out a few weeks after I rushed into my first-week-as-an-undergrad declaration of realism, for most people no one paradigm will cover all of their thoughts, rather they fall into the grey areas that form the borderlands of differing worldviews. The way that we combat this is to start adding prefixes and suffixes, and so certain Republicans beacame no longer conservative but neo-conservative and I become a neo-realist, adopting a very slightly different position than previously. Of course this can end with ridiculous tags as people vary the already-varied paradigms and add a new prefix.

All of this works fine if we're just sticking within a single field, one international relations geek says to another what he thinks about Iran, the reply starts with “Well I'm a neo-liberal, so...” and being a part of the clique the geek knows what the rest of the sentence is. But then the world isn't that simple I also have opinions on domestic politics , economics, philosophy, in fact all sorts, and if I want to be in with the, well I was going to say cool kids but lets face it all these interests land me squarely in the nerd camp, then I need to identify myself. Of course it could be simple, we could use the terms to mean at least roughly the same thing. We could, but we don't. I am a liberal in domestic politics, which is not the same thing as a liberal in international relations.

And right there's another problem, the labels don't even mean the same thing in the two most prominent English speaking nations (that's right the Falkland Islands and St Helena). I have received all of my education in the UK, liberalism is still the term used here to define the dominant political paradigm of the developed world, a centrist, multi-party democratic, broadly market led society with individual freedom. A more committed liberal like me might wish for more individual freedom, less state intervention and a greater use of utilitarianism, but generally western society is liberal. To get the same meaning in the USA I would have to describe myself as libertarian; the term liberal is hurled as an insult at, and increasingly chosen by, socialists. The things that the American right attributes to liberals would make any liberal foam at the mouth.

Which brings us on to the other big flaw, labels are self chosen and self described on one level; I am a liberal, I am trying to make an impression on the USA so I call myself a libertarian, I know what this means and I tell you what it means; on another level the labels are externally chosen, you oppose me and so you shout all over the US press that I am a self described liberal; if that doesn't work then you look at my small government preferences and where I say libertarian you say anarchist; suddenly I'm a lot more scary.

So Labels are both too broad and too narrow, over-flexible and not flexible enough, self-chosen an externally imposed. How can something that contradictory be useful? I would say that it can't.

But what would I know? I'm just a neo-realist-quasi-capitalist-liberal-free-market-monetarist-utilitarian-running-dog.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Those pesky places far away...

It seems the news is filled at the moment with the old perennials of international relations; trouble with and upheaval in Iran; a coup in a central American country; Korea (LGM has a good analysis of Etizoni's arrant tosh on the subject); and Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer).

The military dictatorship is back in the news today with the visit of the UN Sec Gen to the state. As this visit takes place the "trial" of Aung San Suu Kyi rolls on, now with another week's adjournment. When oh when will this woman finally get punished for the heinous crime of someone effectively breaking into her house? The answer is of course that it doesn't matter, she may even be found not guilty, so long as the process lasts till after the election. Suu Kyi's house arrest you see, while itself of dubious legality, was due to expire in time for her to run in the sham that is Burma's general elections. Now we can't have that can we?

The problem is that this will not stop the problem. Ban can talk at the generals all he likes and it will do noting to achieve any more than a temporary respite in the litany of human rights and other abuses that is Burma's recent history. What is kind of depressing is that none of the other solutions offer a magic bullet either. Long history from Vietnam to Iraq tell of the inadvisability of military intervention for a nations "own good". However well intentioned, it is wide open to misinterpretation by the citizens of the now-occupied country, as well as by rabble-rousers. Sanctions don't work either, somehow there always seems to be a way for those at the top to keep at the top, while the people still suffer.

Ultimately the only way for effective and lasting change in any country is for the people of that country to make it and this is true of Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe and all the rest. As for the rest of the world community, all we can do is offer support, and be ready to recognise democracy when it does arise, even if we don't like the democratic leaders it throws up.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Excuse me officer, my car has been extra-legally removed.

There seems, at least in the UK to have been very little news coverage of the recent coup in Honduras. In fact I mentioned it at work today and no-one knew what I was talking about; not their fault, about the only news story in the last week has been the fact that a man who died last Thursday is still dead and that people who liked him are upset he is dead.

The blogging community does seem to have noticed it, and opinion seems mixed, some people are suggesting that it's not a coup at all, simply on the grounds that a civilian government is in place and the Honduran court has ruled that all is above board. Steven Taylor has coined a nice phrase to address this idea
"just because a institution of the state declares an act legal does not make it so."
This seems especially apt in a situation where the various institutions of state make up the parties of the coup. Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, which I have just begun to follow, there is, as seems to be usual over there, a lively debate in the comments. A disturbingly common opinion seems to be that the proposing of a referendum is a dangerous and, somehow, undemocratic act (the concept of forcibly holding a vote has been brought up), and that this of itself justifies a coup.

Meanwhile some bloggers seem to be needing cushions to ease the pain of fence-sitting. Increasingly I am reading language lie "Extralegal" to describe the transfer of power. This is the kind of language that wikipedia refers to as weasel words. They are an attempt to get around a very basic disapproval of coups and support for democracy by redefining what has happened. This isn't a coup d'etat you see, those are undemocratic, they are illegal, this is just a case of having to use extralegal means.

But Extralegal only has one meaning, outside of the law. And we have another word for that. Illegal.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Run for the hills! Run for the hills!

The UK is currently in phase six of the swine flu pandemic, is likely to reach level three of a heat wave and the terror threat is "severe".

That comforting information was given me by the BBC this morning at the beginning of one of Today's great little ten-to-nine discussions (specifically this one). The topic, whilst obviously covering the heatwave and swine flu was whether or not warning levels are worth a rat's arse.

The principle problem is of course that by and large we have no understanding of what the levels mean, most often they are presented to us, as above, in the abstract, it sometimes takes considerable leg work to divine that the heatwave warning is 3 out of a maximum of four; that phase six of a pandemic, whilst the most severe level of human-to-human infection is the last before the post-pandemic phase begins and infection lessens; and that a severe terror threat level means that a terrorist attack is "highly likely" (and even more to find that the panic threat level has not been changed since it was dropped after the 7 July 2005 bombings).

As Today's discussion brought up there is the fact that even given our poorly informed state we just don't know what to do with this kind of information. We might talk in shades of grey but we think in binary. It will either rain or it won't there's so much danger we should hide in the basement or there's nothing to worry about, it's safe or it's dangerous. It takes a great deal of training to break ourselves of this deeply ingrained (some psychologists say hard-wired) instinct, and even then one catches experienced academics doing this occasionally. Dan Gardner's excellent book Risk: the Science and Politics of Fear (excellently written, heavy on the science, light on the politics but understandable to the lay person) covers this situation in depth, including our tendency to fear the worst despite all the evidence, putting this down to the fact that ultimately we are negotiating the information age with stone age brains.

So if we are incapable of processing the information, what use is it? It merely forms a part of our hunger for classification. From school league tables to government performance to mortgage interest rates, we want a number, and preferably a ranking. What we have to come to grips with is the one simple fact that life is not digital, and is not a football game. Rarely is it all as simple as win-loss, and almost never as starkly easy as good vs evil. Left vs Right is a straw man fallacy, reductio ad absurdum. Maybe, just maybe we should all be adult about things.

Or we could just PANIC!